Some Dutch surnames sound plain funny in the English language. So what’s the story behind names like Kok, Pekelharing and Smallegange? Cormac Mac Ruairi investigates.
On first arriving in the Netherlands, I allowed myself a little smile at the ‘quirky Dutch’ for having Wim Kok as prime minister (1994–2002). Then after getting my first job here, I was introduced to two of my colleagues, Mr Uittenbroek and Ms Spring in ‘t Veld.
For the briefest of moments, I wondered if Mr ‘out of his pants’ had a thing with Ms ‘jump in the field’. Tantalising! Well, you had to see them to appreciate the picture.
But alas, as quickly as the idea formed in my mind, it was beaten back by the words of my old Irish language teacher in Dublin: “Foreigners don’t have silly names. In fact, foreigners probably think your own name is silly.”
And boy, he made his point loud and clear. A classmate who had the temerity to find Mr O’Hay’s pronouncement amusing suddenly found himself the victim of a rather robust beating with a crutch (which belonged to a lad named O’ Toole who had a broken leg at the time).
The shock of the assault imprinted the teacher’s words in my mind and consequently laughing at other people’s names just wasn’t an option.
Where it all began
So, what’s the story with Dutch surnames? The defining moment came on 18 August 1811 when Napoleon Boneparte — whose French army were occupying the Netherlands — signed a decree establishing a registry of births, deaths and marriages. Families, who until that time had got on just fine without a surname, were suddenly obliged to pick a surname.
It is a common misconception that the Dutch didn’t take old ‘boney-parts’ all that seriously and set about picking silly names like Borst (breast) and Kok anticipating they could drop them as soon as ‘Nappy’ got what was coming to him. It is an interesting theory but why didn’t the Dutch follow through on this? Perhaps, after all, the Dutch took their new names seriously.
Genealogist Rick van der Wielen says that traditionally, the Dutch used a patronymic system where the father’s first name became the first son’s last name, and the other kids got the left over names from the grandfather, great grandfather and so on.
Gradually in the 1600, people began to turn the patronymic name into modern surnames — Jan Hendricksen (Jan the son of Hendrick) gave his son the surname Hendricksen instead of Jansen. A suffix was often added to indicate ‘son of’ or ‘daughter of’. (Ex. Jan, son of Hendrick would be written Jan Hendricks, Jan Hendrickse or Jan Hendricksen).
Women took a feminine form such as ‘s’, ‘se’, ‘sd’, ‘sdr’ and even ‘sen’ which implied the full suffix of ‘sdochter’, meaning ‘daughter of; (Ex. Jannetje Dirksdr would be Jane, daughter of Dirk).
“But the Dutch, being independently minded, couldn’t agree on a single system. For instance, one of the sons might use the name Hendricksen, while another might call himself Jansen, with another sibling basing his name on his town of origin and another on his occupation, Brouwer (brewer),” says van der Wielen.
Incidentally, Van der Wielen’s own name refers to a pool of water along the coast that remains after the tide goes out – and not the Dutch word for wheel.
The top 10 Dutch names
Genealogist Miriam Klaassen says that a combination of unflattering nicknames, patronymic-based names, associations with place of origin and references to occupation have become the most popular surnames.
The top 10 surnames include: De Jong (the young), Jansen or Janssen (son of Jan), Bakker (baker), Visser (fisher), Smit (smith) and Meijer/Meyer (land agent).
Van Dijk is another all-time favourite but boringly enough, it refers to the Dutch preoccupation with keeping sea water out of their clogs rather than a reference to the mother’s sexual preference.
My personal favourite is Van den/der Berg (from/of the mountain). Now that has got to be a joke.
We can have a giggle about the Dutch first name Pik which seems to relate to the Dutch word for the male organ but we should not lose the run of ourselves. Kok for instance means cook.
In the movie Meet the Parents, Ben Stiller plays a character named Gaylord Fokker and we are all supposed to laugh. But Fokker (breeder) is a perfectly legitimate surname in the Netherlands. And while we are on the subject, my heart goes out to the Dutch man who proudly announced ‘I fok horses’ when asked about his occupation during an interview on British television some years back.
So Dutch names are perhaps not so weird after all. But if you do have to laugh, be sure there are no Irish teachers brandishing a large crutch in the vicinity.